Vietnamese food should fit right into your New Year’s resolution regime. Usually associated with fresh greenery, cellophane noodles, rice, and pork or beef, this crispest of cuisines relies on splashes of fish sauce or shrimp paste to provide a penumbra of umami. In Vegetarian Viet Nam (W.W. Norton, 2018), author and chef Cameron Stauch draws from traditional recipes to reimagine Vietnamese favorites in a fully vegetarian, and sometimes vegan, mode. He strives to make the lack of meat and fish no big deal by essentially disguising their absence. Many of the ingredients, like seitan and mushroom powder, are there to help replicate the savory umami flavors usually brought in with fish or meat-based condiments.
Stauch’s book is borne of the difficulty he had in Vietnam ascertaining the provenance of the meat he was buying (it’s hard, in Asia, to be sure that your beef is hormone-free, organic, or even fresh). As he writes, he “had a particular advantage when developing these recipes; as someone who is not strictly vegetarian, I could easily compare meat-based dishes with their meat-free counterparts to ensure as close an approximation of flavor and texture as possible.”
Because Vietnamese food leans on spices, aromatics, and condiments to create flavors, the recipes in Vegetarian Viet Nam escape the trap that many vegetarian cookbooks fall into by compensating for the lack of protein with extra cheese, heavy cream, or breading. And apart from the occasional use of items like galangal root, wild lime leaves, or tamarind, most of the dishes can be approximated without a trip to a specialty grocery. Recipes include vegetarian versions of Vietnamese favorites, like the Bánh Mì Sandwich, which replaces the usual pork filling with Five-Spice-Glazed Tofu and a schmear of an umami-filled Nutty Mushroom Pâté. The Star Anise Cinnamon Scented Pho Noodle Soup uses tofu-skin sticks, red miso, and a mushroom-rich vegetable broth to give it the body usually gained from beef stock.
There is also a revelatory section on salads that do require some harder-to-find ingredients, like the Tart and Spicy Green Mango Salad or the Banana Blossom Salad, which sounds so appealing in its vinegar-lime-soy dressing that it might be worth going on a quest to find banana blossoms — although Stauch allows that they can be replaced with cabbage. The book is flexible that way, encouraging readers to actually cook with it rather than just flip through it for food porn before calling for takeout.